Monday, 16 August 2010

Shampoo and Curry

What’s the connection between curry and shampoo? Yes, really is one, strange as it may seem...


Many and varied are the words that have passed into English from the Indian subcontinent such as pyjamas, Juggernaut and thug. It is perhaps less well known that ‘shampoo’ came into English from Hindi (chāmpo चाँपो).

I discovered this recently while browsing through my well-thumbed copy of ‘Hobson-Jobson’ the Anglo-Indian Dictionary compiled by Henry Yule and A C Burnell in the late 19th century. This defines ‘shampoo’ as “to kneed and press the muscles with the view of relieving fatigue” and it quotes several examples. The author of 1748 book, A Voyage to the East Indies, believed it to be of Chinese origin - “Shampooing is an operation not known in Europe, and is peculiar to the Chinese...” The procedure was clearly a bit scary. “Had I not seen several China merchants shampooed before me, I should have been apprehensive of danger, even at the sight of the different instruments.”

Various other writers quoted also express the belief that shampooing is Chinese. However, by 1813 one writer says: “There is sometimes a voluptuousness in the climate of India, a stillness in nature, an indescribable softness, which soothes the mind, and gives it up to the most delightful sensations: independent of the effects of opium, champoing, and other luxuries indulged in by oriental sensualists.”

Shampoo massages (for head and body) were introduced into Britain by Sake Dean Mahomed, a surgeon from Bengal, who moved first to London and then to the seaside resort of Brighton in 1814 where he opened a ‘shampooing baths’ - these being a variant on the then popular Turkish baths. Sake Dean Mahomed is also credited with opening Britain's first curry house, The Hindoostanee Coffee House in George Street, central London. Hence the connection between shampoo and curry. Sadly, however, his curry house appears to have been less successful than his shampoo baths. The British at that period did not have the taste for vindaloos and chicken korma which they subsequently developed.

While shampooing in the original sense, may have involved a head massage, that was not obligatory. According to The Victorian Turkish Bath web site (yes, there really is one!) any part of the body might have been massaged. It quotes a description of a shampoo treatment from The Illustrated London News of 1862:

“As soon as the skin of the bather exhibits a flow of gentle perspiration a tellak, or bathman, commences the manipulation which characterises the native tellak. ... We are softly handled instead of being violently pinched. The bathman follows the line of muscles with 'anatomical thumb' to render them supple and to ascertain that they are so before the next operations are proceeded with. With a camel's-hair glove on his hand he sweeps over every inch of the body from the neck to the heels, starting the skin and planing it off in successive rolls, his dextrous hand missing no portion of the body. Legs and arms are cleared of every superfluity. Every part of your body is then cracked with surprising skill—an alarming operation to a novice, but a perfectly safe and necessary one when performed by experienced tellaks.”

Think of that the next time you have a shampoo. Or a curry...

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